Performance: What does it take?

By December 29, 2017Psychology
The Hutch Report

Perform. This is something we all must do. This article examines, at a high level, what it takes to perform well and what differentiates those that perform exceptionally well. Performance is most typically associated with actors or musicians, athletes, or other top talents. But, it is something we all must do. Every day. Actors play a role. We all play multiple roles on any given day. Actors are given accolades when they succeed or deliver a powerful performance in a role. Likewise, when any one of us can perform any of our roles well it also usually leads to rewards. These rewards can be material or even more importantly the non-material, inner rewards.

While of course it is great to earn more money, win prizes, win accolades from our friends, those are fleeting rewards. The more fundamental and powerful rewards are the changes that happen within us. These changes can be subtle. Some examples are increased confidence in ourselves, the satisfaction of having confronted personal challenges, of pushing ourselves to grow. Even if we do not get the material or external rewards, or people laugh in our face, insult us or mock or make fun of us, if we are rooted on what really matters to us in our performance this will allow us to motor on through, to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and get back on the proverbial horse.

Actors, athletes, musicians and other public performers often have relatively clearly defined roles. And they often have the luxury, once they get to a certain level, to be able to focus specific time training to improve and deliver their performance. It becomes a virtuous cycle of success. In his book, Outliers, which was first published in 2008, Malcom Gladwell contends that practice is a key indicator of performance. A widely quoted and restated premise in the book is that ten thousand hours of practice in a particular field will enable the practitioner to become a world-class expert in that field. Gladwell holds out examples of the Beatles, who before becoming huge had spent over ten thousand hours touring in Germany, or Bill Gates who had early access to computers as an adolescent and teenager. While clearly it is a great advantage if one has tons of time to practice for a certain role it is not the whole story.  Certainly, the folks cited in Gladwell’s book are successful  outliers that benefited through tons of “practice” time. So, can anyone of us become an outlier through ten thousand hours of deliberate practice? It turns out, not really. This theory has now been largely debunked in a 2014 research study conducted by Princeton University, Michigan State University, and Rice University.

The abstract from that university study reads:

“More than 20 years ago, researchers proposed that individual differences in performance in such domains as music, sports, and games largely reflect individual differences in amount of deliberate practice, which was defined as engagement in structured activities created specifically to improve performance in a domain. This view is a frequent topic of popular-science writing—but is it supported by empirical evidence? To answer this question, we conducted a meta-analysis covering all major domains in which deliberate practice has been investigated. We found that deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions. We conclude that deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued.”

While there are clearly statistical benefits for practice, particularly in games, sports and music, practice is not the only pillar for success and even less so in education and professions. So if we want to continue improving our games, sports, music or other specific skills, for example public speaking, writing … by all means we should continue to put in the work and practice. You don’t get results without putting in the work, except when playing the lottery. While “hope” is great and good to have, “hope” itself is not a great strategy for success.

So, if it is more than just practice to succeed, particularly in education and other professions, what do those that perform well do better or differently than the others?

About education, I have an intelligent teenager who is struggling in highschool. Like any good parent, I did a bit of googling to see what the Internet had to say about how to help your kid and what do successful students do that is different. Are they just more intelligent? While of course being intelligent does not hurt, thankfully even those of us with average intelligence can be successful students. I stumbled across this Ted Talk which discusses research that was done among UK students to determine what methods the successful students in this group exhibit that helps them be successful, more successful than their peers.  The two main takeaways that I took out of this are that two important items are a) good comprehensive scheduling habits and b) practicing on test questions. These were two of the most important elements of behavior exhibited by successful students. Comprehensive scheduling means scheduling everything ahead, not just classes and revising for tests, but also scheduling in breaks and fun activities. Memorization is also important, however, more important was how to use and deploy the memorized information, hence using practice exam questions to study proves to be a key for success on developing a good understanding of the material being studied. Implementing this so far with my teenager has not been easy. For example, when asked to start planning, the initial plan and schedule was not very detailed. It would just say study at 7pm, relax at 8pm. So we hit upon the idea of planning in reverse. In order to get to a better level of detail and view on how time was being spent on which specific activities, we found it was easier to start by simply writing down the time for activities retrospectively. This approach seems to have served as a good stepping stone to learning how to develop a good forward-looking plan and schedule. Thinking in advance about what you want to do, planning when you are going to do it are two very powerful techniques for any endeavor whether it is in school or anything else.

A book that greatly resonated with me when I was beginning my career in the business world was The Corporate Athlete by Jack Groppel. Maybe this sounds a bit corny or smacks of new-ageism, but it really brought home the fact that in order to really perform any role well – parenting, investing, writing, working, bitcoin speculation  etc – the basic foundation needs to be in place for mind, body, and spirit. It comes down to basics, eating right, exercise, sleep, and mental and spiritual preparation. By spiritual I do not necessarily mean religious, but more strengthening one’s inner spirit through, for example, mindful mediation and increasing will power as discussed in our earlier article The Will Power Battery.

Thirty some odd years later, I am still striving towards that goal as a north star of getting everything in balance, and still going through ups and downs, not always doing what is good for me even though I know better. Here is a handy list that can be used as a great set of reminders that came across my Twitter feed from Vala Afshar (@ValaAfshar), currently as of this writing, the Chief Digital Evangelist at Salesforce.


We’d love to hear from you and any of our readers on what their path has been, what struggles they have faced or are facing and how they are working on overcoming them.